Cloris Leachman got her start in Des Moines and never forgot her hometown
Cloris Leachman, best known for her role as Phyllis Lindstrom on the 1970s sitcoms "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" has died. USA TODAY
During a visit to her alma mater, Des Moines' Roosevelt High School, in 2016, then 90-year-old Cloris Leachman delivered a "TeddyTalk," where she was asked why she became an actress.
“It was just something to do for fun," she replied, according to an account on the Des Moines Public Schools website. "It still is.”
The reality, however, is that the Academy Award-winning Leachman spent most of her life on a stage of one sort or another, working to develop the talents that would carry her to fame in movies ranging from the madcap "Young Frankenstein" to the bleakly tragic "The Last Picture Show," for which she won her Oscar.
Leachman died Wednesday at age 94 at her California home.
She was the namesake of the Cloris Awards, a set of honors given annually for the best productions and performers in Des Moines theater. John Busbee, host of "Culture Buzz" on Des Moines' KFMG community radio, was one of the founders of the awards, and recalled calling Leachman to ask for permission to use her name.
“The answer’s YES!” he said Leachman told him.
When he later met her, he witnessed firsthand the zest she had for being on stage.
“She seemed kind of frail, but once you got her on stage or ‘in the lights,’ as they say, she just blossomed," he said. "I mean she was on. She was funny. She was focused, and she was enthusiastic.”
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It was likely no coincidence that the daughter of avid local actors Berkeley C. and Cloris Wallace Leachman, born when the family was living at Grand Avenue and 56th Street in 1926, made her theatrical debut in Des Moines at age 7.
As she grew up, her name regularly appeared in the columns of local newspapers, which chronicled her activities as an actress, musician and in various social organizations.
Her Des Moines roots went deep. She was the granddaughter of Robert Leachman, who in 1921 founded Leachman Lumber Co., where her father worked as secretary and treasurer when not performing or serving as an officer of local theater organizations. The company, with Cloris Leachman's cousin John Leachman as CEO, still operates on Hubbell Avenue, and on Wednesday posted on its Facebook page a photo of Cloris Leachman from a 2016 visit.
"She was (a) bright light and tons of fun to be around," the posting said. "We, like her fans, will miss her tremendously."
She attended Roosevelt High when her family lived on nearby California Drive, and by age 17, she had a local radio show where she gave household hints to homemakers. Not long after, she was a runner-up in the Miss America pageant.
After graduating in 1944, she left to attend Northwestern University, and then to study at the Actors Studio in New York City, where she launched the career that would bring her worldwide fame. A January 1950 Des Moines Tribune article reported that her parents were preparing to fly to New York for the opening of a Broadway production of Shakespeare's "As You Like It," where Leachman played Celia opposite Katharine Hepburn's Rosalind.
She occasionally returned to her hometown, for instance appearing in 2009 in her one-woman touring show "Cloris!" at the Civic Center.
"She always remembered her Iowa roots," said Matt Mclver, artistic director of the Iowa Stage Theatre Company.
He recalled her final return, for a round of events that included the 2016 Cloris Awards.
"Even then, at 90, she was charming, gracious and radiant," Mclver said. "Central Iowa is rightly proud of her, and we are grateful she was willing to lend her name to our annual celebration of theatrical excellence."
The Cloris Awards issued an official statement, saying, “When a group of Des Moines theater fans huddled up several years ago to create a way to celebrate local theater, it didn’t take us long to name the new annual awards after Cloris Leachman, who got her start right here in Des Moines. She was such a character — on stage and off — and we’re ... more determined than ever to share her joy for the performing arts here in the hometown she loved.”
During the same final trip to Iowa in 2016 when she appeared at the Cloris Awards, Leachman visited the Des Moines Community Playhouse. It was called the Kendall Theatre when she made some of her earliest headlining stage appearances there, starring in “Ah, Wilderness,” in the 1941-42 season and “Love Rides the Rails” the following season.
During her visit, she was inducted as a Playhouse Legend along with longtime friend and fellow Des Moines native Eddie Rissien, who went on to be a Hollywood film and TV producer.
“We are saddened by the passing of one of The Playhouse's most illustrious alumna, Cloris Leachman,” David R. Kilpatrick, Playhouse executive director, said Wednesday. “Cloris had some of her first roles on our stages, starring alongside her lifelong friends Eddie Rissien and Jack Mishler. Her family was and still is involved with our theater."
Also on hand for her visit was John Viars, retired executive director of the playhouse. He said he and Leachman worked together on the Cloris Leachman Scholarship for college-bound high school students, who would perform for her after practicing scenes from plays.
“She would take these kids under her wing, and invite them to her house and show them the Oscar she had, tell them about the people in Hollywood she didn’t like and it was a good entrée into what show business was like," Viars said. "A few of them are still doing theater.”
She also spoke during her final Des Moines visit at the State Historical Museum of Iowa, where she added her handprint to the Produce Iowa Hall of Fame and gave permission for the museum to display the Oscar she won for Best Supporting Actress in "The Last Picture Show."
The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, which manages the museum, issued a statement mourning her loss, saying it “joins Cloris Leachman fans here in her native Iowa and around the world in applauding the sense of humor and feisty spirit she brought to every role she played — on stage, on screen and in her extraordinary life … and we plan to share her legacy with generations of Iowans to come.”
Leachman's love for the stage lives on in people like Eric Olmscheid, director of programming and education for Des Moines Performing Arts. He said he counted her as one of his major inspirations.
"I saw Cloris in the national tour of 'Showboat' in 1996 at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis," he recalled. "It was the first Broadway national tour I had ever seen — and that show, and her performance, that inspired me to work in the performing arts.
"Years later, I was able to meet her and thank her for the inspiration," he added. "It was a professional full circle moment for me."
This article has been edited to correct an error in the date that Cloris Leachman graduated from Roosevelt High School, It was in 1944.
Sierra Porter covers entertainment for the Des Moines Register. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @SierraAPorter95.